Serving as the pastor of a congregation involves lots of conversations. During any given week a pastor is likely to provide marriage counseling, share wisdom with someone making a big decision, lead a meeting, invite someone to volunteer, teach a Bible study, provide feedback to a staff member, preach a sermon, and follow up on a first-time visitor. I’m exhausted just from writing that list, which likely doesn’t cover most of the conversations in which a pastor regularly engages.
Given the frequency and variety of conversations they have, pastors do well to add coaching skills to their skill set. The addition of coaching skills helps improve the quality of most conversations, even those that are not primarily a coaching conversation. Here’s a list of three coaching skills and the value they add to pastoral conversations.
- Active listening. When it comes to high-quality conversations, pastors need to avoid two extremes: doing all the talking, and passively receiving what the other person is sharing. Too many pastors dominate every conversation with all their words. Other pastors keep quiet and let others talk, but in ways that don’t really add value. Active listening allows pastors to make room for others to share but in a way that is engaging and forward moving. Active listening techniques such as summarizing, paraphrasing, asking for clarification, allowing for silence, and providing a non-judgmental thought partner all combine to increase the quality of conversations where the pastor might be tempted to problem-solve or sit back and let the other person talk in circles.
- Evoking awareness. Coaches use questions, observations, and metaphors and analogies to help those they coach come to new awareness. Too many pastoral conversations have lots of words but little new awareness. Pastors can upgrade their conversations by using the coaching competency of evoking awareness to help those with whom they are conversing to get somewhere new in their thinking. Important to coaching is that the coach is rarely the one telling the client what to think, do, or believe. Instead, the coach uses active listening in combination with other techniques to facilitate the client’s thinking process and support them in exploring the unknowns of their situation. Central to this coaching skill is the pastor being comfortable with not knowing and with the other person not knowing. Instead of rushing to fill a knowledge vacuum, the pastor will do better to let the vacuum stir the other person’s curiosity and desire to know. When others are motivated to know and own the learning process, new awareness is discovered and this new awareness gets valued, retained, and utilized far more than knowledge that is delivered.
- Leveraging agreements. In the vernacular of the International Coach Federation, this skill is termed “Establishes and Maintains Agreements.” While most pastoral conversations do not involve formal coaching within a clear coaching agreement, we shouldn’t miss the power of agreements in non-coaching conversations. I’ve worked with pastors for 20+ years and my experience is that 95% of them let conversations wander because of low or missing intentionality and focus. Coaches are skilled at establishing and maintaining agreements that set the agenda for a relationship or a specific conversation. Addressing key questions such as, “Why are we talking/meeting?”, “What will success look like for this conversation?”, “What is your agenda/interest?” helps establish mutual agreement about the nature of the conversation so the conversation can proceed accordingly. A boost in intentionality will almost always create a boost in value for any conversation.
If you serve as a pastor, consider how you could begin incorporating coaching skills such as these. But be warned: making changes to how you converse will be difficult – for you and for others.
Making changes to how you converse will be difficult for you because you already have well-formed patterns for conversing and patterns are hard to break. Be patient with yourself, but also be persistent. Don’t start with your most challenging conversations; instead, look for low-hanging fruit opportunities where you can listen more actively, evoke awareness, and leverage agreements. In my experience, conversations that already have a touch of formality/structure (e.g., staff meetings and counseling sessions) are a good place to start.
Making changes will also be difficult for those with whom you converse. They are accustomed to your current ways of conversing and doing things differently will likely create some discomfort and/or confusion. Your conversation partners will also benefit from some patience and persistence. Don’t expect your new conversation skills to produce fruit immediately, be patient as others get into rhythm with your new style. But don’t let patience be a euphemism for not pressing the issue. Stick with it and press through the discomfort that accompanies any change initiative.
Don’t forget: every conversation has a purpose and a desired result. When you leverage these and other coaching skills, your conversations will improve and so will the results you are experiencing as a pastor.